August 20, 2017

U.S. turns its back on camp

THECOLUMBIADAILY TRIBUNE

Iranian dissidents not terrorists but face abuse in Iraq.

No presidential administration wants a crisis in an election year, yet 2012 finds the Obama administration careening headlong into a major showdown with Iran.

Tehran just announced it has started enriching uranium at an underground site in Ferdow, near Qom, an ominous sign of nuclear weapons production. After threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz and choke off the world’s supply of oil, Tehran announced yet another military maneuver is planned for the Persian Gulf. And, among other provocations, a former U.S. Marine of Iranian descent was sentenced to execution on espionage charges.

The United States has responded with tightening economic sanctions on Iran, targeting the central bank. Our European allies are contemplating an oil embargo that seemed far-fetched six months ago.

Sanctions by themselves are clearly not enough. The objective of the sanctions is to increase internal pressure on Tehran’s rulers to change course. But Tehran will not back down. Short of an allied invasion, which in the wake of Iraq is neither practical nor affordable, what options remain?

In Iran, there were opposition groups that struggled against the Shah and then the Islamist regime. The most effective and organized of these groups is the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK. It is an ideal ally for the United States and other democracies in changing the totalitarian regime in Teheran. Unfortunately, in 1997, as a goodwill gesture to the regime in Iran, the United States designated this group of dissidents as terrorists.

The United Kingdom and the European Union delisted the MEK after decisions by their highest courts rejected any connection of the MEK with terrorism. On July 16, 2010, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled the secretary had erred in not delisting the MEK and remanded the case for a review. In a bipartisan initiative, nearly 100 members of Congress have urged the delisting of MEK, as has a stellar group of the most senior national security officials of the past four administrations.

I lived with the people of Camp Ashraf for well more than a year. I worked with them for many more. Few people know them better. My information is firsthand, from personal observation and experience, and it is untainted by politics, propaganda, hearsay and lies. Ever the Army military policeman I was for more than three decades, the facts tell me the people of Camp Ashraf are not terrorists.

Ashraf residents are doctors, lawyers, artists, writers, and musicians. They count among their alma maters UCLA, Ohio State, Michigan State, Kent State and Florida State. A third of the residents of Ashraf studied abroad. Another third were imprisoned under the shah and then the Ayatollah Khomeini. They do not come from the unemployed disgruntled groups of people who have no cause. The people of Camp Ashraf have a cause: freedom, democracy, tolerance and equality. Their leader, Maryam Rajavi, is firm in her belief in a secular, non-nuclear Iran.

The U.S. government promised to protect the 3,400 residents of Ashraf when they turned in their weapons in 2003. I was there to witness it. I also witnessed the extensive background investigations into each individual member of the MEK at Camp Ashraf. I waited for the smoking gun, the piece of evidence that would rationalize why they continued to be detained. That evidence never materialized because it didn’t exist.

Despite our written promise to protect them, we left the dissidents to suffer at the hands of Iraqi troops operating under the encouragement, if not the outright command, of the Iranian regime. Multiple rocket attacks in the past few weeks, coupled with physiological torture by the Iraqi and Iranian captors, leave not only this soldier but countless other U.S. soldiers who served at Camp Ashraf disgusted. Since we turned our back on those residents, 47 of them have been killed and more than 1,000 wounded.

Now the regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in complicity with the Tehran regime, wants to close down Camp Ashraf. To show their good will, 400 residents recently moved to Camp Liberty on the northeast side of the Baghdad International Airport complex. Camp Liberty is an interesting name for what it actually is: a prison. When Camp Liberty was turned over to the Iraqi government, it was a fully functional, well-maintained installation capable of handling thousands of people. That is no longer the case. The living trailers, dining facilities, kitchens, showers — all have been looted. It no longer meets minimal standards for habitation, as has become apparent now that Ashraf residents have moved there. The Iraqi government steadfastly refuses to allow us to see for ourselves. I volunteer, as a former general who is familiar with Camp Liberty and knows what it takes to house and billet thousands of people, to go to Iraq. I will report whether it is capable of supporting thousands of people. If not, the United States must step in before the Iraqi government creates a human catastrophe.

It is time to remove the MEK from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Not only is this consistent with our values as a nation, but it will also unshackle their ability to mobilize Iranians at home and abroad in bringing about democratic change in Iran that is long overdue. Now is time to act.

David Phillips, a retired brigadier general, is the former chief of the Military Policy School at Fort Leonard Wood and former commander of all police operations in Iraq, which included the protection of Camp Ashraf.